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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: The hidden agenda in Jefferson City

By Susan Cunningham
May 20, 2013 | 2:37 p.m. CDT

Assessments of the 2013 session of the Missouri state legislature are in, and they are not good. In fact, if the General Assembly were a public school, it would be declared "failing" and put under the control of a outside management company.

Those who say the legislative leaders should be ashamed of themselves are correct but base that opinion on the wrong set of assumptions. Despite campaign promises of good times again for Missouri's economy, the real goal of Missouri's legislative leaders is to continue the shift of wealth and power upward to their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council. Using ALEC's principles of free markets, limited government and federalism, Missouri's legislative leaders scored at the top of the list of states working to dismantle all public programs and services. They met their goals and are probably celebrating all the way to the bank.

ALEC is like a dating service for corporate lobbyists and state legislators looking for patrons with deep pockets. Founded in the 1970s, ALEC collects tens of thousands of dollars in dues each year from corporate members who then get to wine and dine legislators and provide them with model bills to take home as souvenirs.

Speaker Tim Jones and Rep. Jason Smith are co-chairs of the Missouri delegation to ALEC. Jones sponsored an ALEC "get acquainted" party in the Capitol building last spring and urged members to attend. Legislators receive "scholarships" to attend national meetings at very nice resorts and hotels where corporations sponsor evening entertainment and fun activities for members' kids.

A quick review of ALEC's website shows how task forces made up of members from public and private arenas hammer out legislation that favors the corporate side at the expense of public programs geared toward the general population. Wonder why lead smelting firms are off the hook when it comes to punitive damages? Check out the Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force's handy guide, "EPA's Regulatory Train Wreck: Strategies for State Legislatures."

Rep. Smith's hobby horses have been focused on protecting factory farms from nosy and local municipalities ever since he inserted himself for personal reasons into the puppy mill issue two years ago. If Smith wins the June 4 special election in the 8th Congressional District, he will take those same values to Washington and fit right in with the anti-environment-climate-change deniers there already.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Jefferson City this season was the failure of a broad coalition of supporters of Medicaid expansion to get so much as a reasonable debate in either chamber. Of course, the goal of ALEC members for two decades has been to dismantle public health care programs altogether, so it might have been a little naive to think they would expand one of the major ones. By cutting taxes at both the national and state level, those who don't believe it is government's job to help individuals have deliberately made it impossible to fund the programs that most of us believe help build a stronger society and, therefore, a more cohesive nation. The inside story about stonewalling Medicaid expansion can be found in ALEC's publication, "The State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare."

ALEC got a lot of bad press after the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida because of that state's "stand your ground" law, which came directly from another ALEC task force. More than 40 corporations have dropped their membership in ALEC under pressure by citizens appalled by the incestuous relationship between ALEC members and the NRA. Missouri legislators this year passed bills on this issue they know will be declared unconstitutional. Evidently they don't mind the state spending money on court cases and appeals despite not having enough for disabled children or mental health resources.

Missouri is ranked on ALEC's "Education Report Card" for undermining support for public education and building investment opportunities for funding private schools and curriculum resources. A voucher by any other name is still a voucher, which diverts public money into private pockets. Rather than openly championing their goal of privatizing public education, ALEC-inspired legislators claim to want an "excellent education" for every Missouri child. But actions speak louder than words.

Language is important. Who can be against the "right to farm" or "right to work"? How many people actually look at the reality behind those words? Most voters don't have time or the patience to study issues thoroughly. Sadly, what they are missing is the hidden agenda of a tiny portion of our population who manipulate the political process to enhance their own wealth and power.

Susan Cunningham is a retired professor of American history. She gives presentations about ALEC. She lives in Pacific, Mo.